Living overseas can sometimes be difficult, especially if your host culture is dramatically different from the way things are “back home.” Many new expatriate spouses feel overwhelmed and disoriented by the shock of a novel cultural environment. Some respond by clinging to the familiar: they make a point of socializing only with other expats, and maintain minimal contact with local people. Others rise to the challenge of living fully in the unknown culture, embracing the uniqueness of the land and its citizens.
When your world feels topsy-turvy, it’s easy to slip into the welcoming arms of the expat community. There’s nothing wrong with building a support network of like-minded people; after all, no-one will ever understand an expat’s life like another expatriate. However, wrapping yourself exclusively in an expat cocoon won’t do much to smooth the adjustment process: it’s hard to relax if you have an “us versus them” mindset about the local population. The results of a 1998 study suggest that social interactions with members of the host culture play a big part in “increasing understanding and satisfaction with living in a foreign culture.”
Adjusting to life abroad
Adjustment, which can be broadly defined as having a sense of ease in an unfamiliar environment, has two dimensions:
- Psychological adjustment is internally oriented — it’s a feeling of well-being or satisfaction.
- Sociocultural adjustment is externally oriented, and relates to how well one functions in the unfamiliar community.
While it’s possible to adjust along just one of these dimensions, the ideal is to achieve both. The successful expatriate is one who feels self-confident and happy, has achieved a certain amount of cross-cultural awareness, and is adept at navigating the uncertainties of expat life.
Expat life is better with local friends
If you’re like the majority of expats, you arrive with the goal of settling in and feeling comfortable in your new home. Assimilation — the process of shedding the original culture and assuming a new one — is generally not the aim of expats on a two- to five-year assignment. A more balanced approach would to maintain your original culture while adopting many useful aspects of the host culture.
Adjustment doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a fair amount of time and effort before most expatriates feel truly at ease. Widening your social circle to include non-expats is valuable on a practical level: local friends can serve as “cultural informants” to explain the ins and outs of your new environment. Plus, as Swedish researcher Ingemar Torbiorn and others have discovered, they’re “an important determinant of satisfaction” in the host culture.
Where can I meet local people?
The level of difficulty involved in meeting the locals depends a lot on the rigidity of the host culture. In extremely hierarchical countries where social roles are strictly defined, it’s harder to have meaningful encounters with local people. Language also plays a big role; it’s obviously much more challenging (although not impossible!) to communicate without a common language. That said, there are a few strategies that might work:
- Got kids? If so, you have a natural advantage: you can strike up a conversation with other parents at school, sporting activities, and social events.
- Taking a course — in music, pottery, even the local language — throws you together with people who share your interests.
- Volunteering or becoming a member of a local organization (outside the framework of the international associations) is a win-win way to meet people.
- If you haven’t already, introduce yourself to your neighbours. (Admittedly, this works better if you don’t live in a predominantly expat area.)
- Take up a sport. It’s good for body and soul, and athletic clubs often organize social activities for their members.
- Get a job (if you’re able) and get to know your co-workers.
In cities with well-established expat communities, a little more effort may be required to make friends. The locals have seen expats come and go, and aren’t always prepared to put the effort into building a relationship with someone who may be moving on in a couple of years. Don’t lose heart, though. Even chatting with a street vendor or discussing politics with a taxi driver could brighten your day — and may even ease your adjustment to the new culture.